Every year, millions of Americans get sick with influenza, which most of us know as the seasonal flu. To make matters worse, this year’s flu season comes in the midst of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
So what can you do to help prevent a “twindemic” of the flu and COVID-19? Get a flu shot.
During the 2018-2019 flu season, the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 4.4 million flu illnesses and 3,500 flu-related deaths. And that’s with only about half of the U.S. population getting the vaccine.
“We’ve been talking a lot about COVID-19, but the flu can cause pneumonia and lead to hospitalization,” says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD. “It’s really not a good idea to add influenza to the list of potential respiratory problems you could have this year.”
The flu vaccine can reduce your risk of flu by 40 to 60 percent, “and even if you get the flu after getting a flu shot, you get a milder form of the illness and are sick for fewer days,” Dr. Ruff says.
Here are five things you need to know about getting a flu shot during the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. You need a flu shot each year.
Flu viruses can change from one season to the next. Also, the body’s immunity to flu viruses, whether acquired naturally or through a vaccine, will decline over time. Getting the vaccine each year is the best way to stay ahead of the flu.
2. The flu vaccine should be available in September.
Most primary care providers and retail pharmacy chains will begin offering flu shots in September. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone get the flu vaccine in September or October to make sure you’re immunized before you encounter the flu. However, people who miss that window are still encouraged to get a flu shot in the winter.
If you are over 65 or at high risk of complications from the flu, wait until at least mid-September, so that the vaccine’s protection lasts the entire season, Dr. Ruff says. People at higher risk of complications include children younger than 2, adults 65 and older, pregnant or immediately postpartum women, residents of nursing homes, people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease, and those with chronic immune-suppressing conditions such as diabetes and cancer.
If you have insurance, flu vaccines at most pharmacies, doctor’s offices and urgent care centers are free. Without insurance, you’ll pay more out of pocket, but many pharmacies and providers have programs that offer discounted flu shots in addition to in-store discounts. Vaccinefinder.org is a helpful tool for finding locations near you that have the flu shot available.
3. Nearly everyone should get the flu vaccine—especially this year.
Anyone ages 6 months and older should get the flu shot, except those with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine, such as gelatin or antibiotics.
Because there is the possibility of getting both the flu and COVID-19 this year, public health experts are urging everyone to get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but also to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients.
In addition to getting the flu shot, the CDC recommends the pneumonia vaccination for children younger than 2, adults 65 and older, and anyone with a chronic health condition. Immunosuppressed patients, such as those with leukemia or HIV, should also be immunized. Ask your or your child’s healthcare provider about what is best for your situation.
4. Flu shots won’t give you the flu.
Flu vaccines are sometimes made with a flu virus, but not a live one. Therefore, they can’t make you sick.
“It’s an inactivated, dead vaccine, so there’s no way it can make you sick. But it’s cold and flu season, so you could get a cold, and it’s just a coincidence,” Dr. Ruff says. “If you get body aches and you experience fatigue for 24 hours after the flu shot, it’s your body trying to work really hard to fight off the future flu. It’s working so hard that it wears you out and makes you feel like you need to rest.”
5. The flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19, but the pandemic makes it even more important.
Although COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms and both are contagious, infectious respiratory illnesses, different viruses cause them.
“The flu vaccine is specific to the influenza virus. The antigens or proteins that we’re putting in the flu vaccine are going to mount our bodies’ response against influenza, not COVID-19,” Dr. Ruff says.
But the more you limit your chances of getting any respiratory virus, the better. Because they have such similar symptoms, you could have the flu and think it’s COVID-19 or vice versa.
“The more we can limit the chances that we’re going to get something that makes us think we have COVID, the better,” Dr. Ruff says, for both individuals and the healthcare system as a whole.
Need your flu shot? Call your primary care doctor or find one near you. If you are concerned that you may have symptoms of COVID-19, talk to your doctor or visit the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page.